12 Winters Blog

Jailbreak!: William Gass’s Lifelong Work to Free Himself from the Imprisonment of Print

Posted in February 2018, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on February 23, 2018

This paper was presented at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900, University of Louisville, on February 23, 2018. Due to a last-minute change, I chaired the panel, Temporalities of Revision. Other panelists were Kelly Kiehl, University of Cincinnati; and Sarah-Jordan Stout, Rice University. The paper is dedicated to William H. Gass, who passed away December 6, 2017.



In the annals of American experimental fiction, William H. Gass’s Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife holds a place of reverence due, mainly, to its ambitious (some may say, excessive) experimentation: nineteen different typefaces (varying in point sizes, with unusual placements and movements on the pages), and copious graphic elements, including several photos of a nude model. The odd little novella first appeared in 1968 as TriQuarterly supplement No. 2 – in its most experimental format, which included a variety of paper stock in addition to its other eccentricities – then in a hardcover edition from Knopf (1971) and later a paperback edition from Dalkey Archive (1989). The Knopf and Dalkey editions maintained the original design, minus the use of various paper stock.

Willie Masters’ occupies a place of infamy in Postmodern circles: No one faults Gass’s ambitions. However, the odd little book hasn’t garnered much, well, affection over the years either, which I think is a crying shame. Even Gass himself wasn’t overly generous regarding the end result. In the Art of Fiction interview (1976) he stated,

I was trying out some things. Didn’t work. Most of them didn’t work. . . . Too many of my ideas turned out to be only ideas—situations where the reader says: “Oh yeah, I get the idea,” but that’s all there is to get, the idea. I don’t give a shit for ideas—which in fiction represent inadequately embodied projects—I care only for affective effects. (Conversations 22)

He was, I think, a little too hard on himself. I am moved by the book; it affects me, but perhaps not quite as Gass would have hoped. And Gass may have changed his opinion of Willie Masters’ success over time. In the essay “Anywhere but Kansas” which first appeared in The Iowa Review in 1994 (nearly thirty years after writing Willie Masters’ and on the cusp of The Tunnel’s publication, which required a gestation of nearly that length of time and which makes use of many of the techniques in its infamous predecessor), Gass discusses the importance of experimentation: “An experiment, I would learn much later, . . . had to arise from a real dissatisfaction with existing knowledge. There was a gap to be filled, a fracture to be repaired, an opening to be made” (29). The public at large, he says, only admires experiments that work; however, for the experimenters themselves, an unsuccessful experiment may bring its own kind of success. “In the lab,” writes Gass, “a ‘no’ may not elicit cheers; it is nevertheless a bearer of important information” (30). He may, then, have learned some important narrative lessons from Willie Masters’, lessons he took to heart during the three decades he labored on The Tunnel, which shares some of Willie Masters’ techniques, but significantly toned down.

Gass imposingWhat is more, three decades later, Gass felt just as strongly about the need for writers to engage in experimentation for the sake of their art: “[I]t is . . .  repeatedly necessary for writers to shake the system by breaking its rules, ridiculing its lingo, and disdaining whatever is in intellectual fashion. To follow fashion is to play the pup” (Conversations 30). Gass may not have achieved the aesthetic affects he was aiming for in Willie Masters’ in 1968, but, in retrospect, he seemed to value his own efforts — though he doesn’t say so explicitly.

As wildly experimental as Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife turned out to be, it was tamer than Gass had in mind1. A visit to the Gass Papers at Washington University in St. Louis, where Gass taught philosophy from 1969 to 1999, can give us some sense of what the author had in mind from the start, working only with a manual typewriter, pen or pencil, straight edge, scissors and glue, plus other objects like fabric and newspaper clippings. In part what Gass was trying to achieve was bridging the gap between writer and reader by making the narrative come to life, so to speak, in the reader’s hands. That is, rather than simply describing things — that is, providing symbols for things — which evoke intellectual and (hopefully) emotional responses in the reader, Gass wanted the thing itself to become part of the reader’s world. In essence, the book itself becomes a performance piece in the reader’s world — akin perhaps to the playwright’s task in moving from script to performed play. One writes of a pistol on the page, which becomes a real pistol on the stage, one which discharges so that the audience members can actually hear its bang and actually smell its smoke.

Gass may encourage this comparison by including a play as one of the multiple narratives at work in Willie Masters’, whose overarching narrative is Babs Masters’ seduction of the reader into her lonely text. One of the best examples of Gass’s attempt to move from manuscript into the reader’s reality is via a set of coffee-cup rings that appear on several pages. A new section of the novella begins, “The muddy circle you see just before you and below you represents the ring left on the leaf of the manuscript by my coffee cup” ([37]). But just as the theatrical pistol is only a prop, Gass immediately acknowledges that the dark-brown circle is not actually a ring from his cup: “Represents, I say, because, as you must surely realize, this book is many removes from anything I’ve set pen, hand, or cup to.” The author attempts to enter the reader’s reality more corporeally than authors typically do, but, ultimately, that gap can only be bridged so far.

Text with coffee ring 1

We can see that the coffee-ring idea was an early one in Gass’s conception of the book, and, in fact, was created no doubt by actual coffee.The circle returns later in the novella, but in a more metaphorical role according to the text it encircles: “This is the moon of daylight” ([52]). The circle multiplies to appear as five circles on the final two pages of the book, in two cases highlighting the inserted phrases “HERE BE DRAGONS” and “YOU HAVE FALLEN INTO ART — RETURN TO LIFE” ([58]). The final coffee-like ring appears on the facing page, which is a close-up of the female nude’s breasts and navel, with the ring encircling the latter.Others have noted that there are (at least) two female models used for the book: one whose image appears on the cover, and another whose images appear (possibly) eight times throughout the book. The final coffee ring appears on the torso of, it appears, the cover’s model. The interior version of Babs Masters is more, well, voluptuous than the cover and final coffee-ring Babs. Yet there is a striking difference between the cover and the final image:  The nude on the cover has no belly-button; it’s been airbrushed out. The final coffee-ring encircles and emphasizes the belly-button, however, maybe making us take note of its absence on the cover.

coffee rings - there be dragons

WM cover - no navel

navel - close up

Is it in fact, then, Babs represented on the cover of the book, or is it Eve? Gass would go on to use Eve as a metaphor with regularity in his fictions. Michael Hardin makes some provocative observations about Willie Masters’ in an article in Short Story, discussing both Gass’s novella and Kathy Acker’s New York City in 1979. Hardin notes, for example, that on the first page of the book Babs’s hand reaches toward the title just as the reader does in a rather hand-of-God sort of way:

The extended arm references Michelangelo’s Creation of Man, where God is extending his hand to spark life into Adam’s extended hand. The reader must decide whether Babs (the wife) is in the space of the creator or the created. . . . [G]iven the nature of the sexual politics of the text, one might argue that Babs is the creative spark passed between author (whose hand reaches out with the pen) and reader, God and Adam. (80-81)

hand of godPerhaps Hardin didn’t notice the MIA belly-button because he doesn’t bring Eve into the analysis even though it seems rife for her inclusion. By encircling Babs’s navel at the conclusion of the book (and returning to the cover model for the image), Gass signals that Eve/Babs is now only Babs, making the statement “You have fallen into art—return to life” especially provocative. It may be that our sojourn in the complicated text of Willie Masters’ – which Gass overtly parallels with our having sexual intercourse with Babs – is akin to the Fall, and when we reach the final page we are expelled from the textual Paradise, like hapless Adam and Eve; however, like Adam and Eve we have acquired a unique experience for which we are the richer, even if that richness is colored by sin. But since sin in this metaphor is art/sex, Gass implies sin ain’t such a bad thing, and, in fact, it (art, experiencing it, creating it) is the only thing that makes life worth living: An idea which Gass returned to again and again in his fiction, his essays, his criticism, and his interviews. In addition to being a voracious and eclectic reader, Gass said, in 1971, that he enjoyed “all” the arts, “especially perhaps ballet (when pure and not mucked up) and architecture. I was an opera nut when young. . . . I haunt museums when I can. In one sense, painting has influenced my theory of art more than almost anything, music my practice of it” (9). Gass’s interest in the visual is obviously reflected in his merging of text with pictorial elements. As a writer, he was about what all writers ought to be about, he said: “You are advancing an art—the art. That is what you are trying to do” (26).

One of Gass’s ambitions in Willie Masters’ is to seduce the reader into reading the text carefully and thoughtfully – that is, deeply. Already in 1966, when he began work on the novella, Gass recognized that too many readers were impatiently speeding through texts, and (worse perhaps) too many writers were providing them material that enabled such shallow encounters. Gass said, “A lot of modern writers . . . are writing for the fast mind that speeds over the text like those noisy bastards in motor boats. . . . They stand to literature as fast food to food” (25). Whenever one begins unpacking a Gass metaphor, the act, by necessity, becomes reductive. Nevertheless, for illustration’s sake, I’ll work my way through Gass’s attempted seduction of the reader in Willie Masters’ via his use of metaphor, wordplay, and imagery. I will force myself as best I can to hold onto a single strand and resist the text’s Siren song which could lead us in myriad directions (not to our doom, however).

One of several storylines Gass juggles in Willie Masters’ is a playscript featuring Ivan and Olga wherein Ivan finds a penis baked into his breakfast roll. At this point in the novella the carnival ride hasn’t become too topsy-turvy for the reader, but it’s about to begin spinning (nearly) out of control. Gass starts interrupting the playscript with footnotes which engage the reader in academic-sounding notes related, it seems, to the main narrative. The first footnote is signaled by an asterisk, and the second by two asterisks (just as Gass is using asterisks to represent other things in the text besides footnotes, so are these footnotes after all? — Or is Gass toying with us?). The second alleged footnote references John Locke’s Concerning Human Understanding (ha!) and discusses how “ideas” are “take[n] in,” “masticate[d]” and “swallow[ed] down” ([15], my emphasis on down). The footnote-like interruptions continue on the following pages, except on page [17] the footnote itself is interrupted with yet another typeface, in bold, which says, “Now that I’ve got you alone down here [i.e., at the bottom of the page], you bastard, don’t think I’m letting you get away easily, no sir, not you brother; anyway, how do you think you’re going to get out, down here where it’s dark and oily like an alley . . . ?” Suddenly “down here” is not the bottom of the page, but rather it’s Babs talking to us about her dark and oily sex, which she says is as “meaningless as Plato’s cave.” We, the blissful readers, have been lured there, in between Babs’s waiting legs, and there’s no easy way out.

Footnote - close up

foot pageThe complexities mount, so to speak, for twenty or more pages before we come (ugh) to the section that introduces us to the “muddy circle” — whose dark shape, like the opening of Plato’s cave perhaps, has even more symbolic weight than mere coffee-cup ring. We also note that the section begins with Babs’s bare leg and foot knocking down the enlarged “T” in “The” with which the paragraph starts, thus echoing the earlier seductive “footnote” ([37]). Gass’s playing with the convention of the footnote, a standard feature of annotated texts, appears to contradict its function, at first, but upon further contemplation (and multiple readings) it does not contradict it. That is, normally a footnote aids in clarifying a reference, and thereby maybe an entire passage, but the footnotes in Willie Masters’ seem to only muddy the narrative waters, obscuring instead of clarifying. However, we later realize that the footnotes are aiding our understanding of the novella as a whole, contributing to the convention that Gass is attempting to seduce us into a complex relationship with his book. Intercourse with Babs Masters cannot be a mere one-night stand; she gets into your head and won’t let you go — à la Fatal Attraction. (Luckily I don’t have a pet rabbit.)

Earlier I said that I am affected by Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife. I must acknowledge that its characters do not engage me on an emotional level, but the book itself – Gass’s ambitions and his achievements –are inspirational to me as a creative writer. A black-and-white photo of the Master hangs on the wall next to my desk; a line drawing, too, on the wall of our master bedroom, next to the door where it will be viewed most frequently; I have acquired 51 books either by Gass or which include his writing (among them first editions, rare books, and several bearing his autograph), and this isn’t counting the books about Gass’s work. I have surrounded myself by the Master and his words, including this literary call-to-arms at the end of Willie Masters’: “It’s not the languid pissing prose we’ve got, we need; but poetry, the human muse, full up, erect and on charge, impetuous and hot and loud and wild like Messalina going to the stews, or those damn rockets streaming headstrong into the stars.”

Amen, Master. Rest in peace, and in the knowledge some of us will carry on the good fight.


1. See “‘The Text Is Oozing Out’: William H. Gass and Transliteracy” by Clarence Wolfshohl, Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 26, no. 4, 1989, pp. 497-503, in which Wolfshohl shares some of his personal correspondence with Gass regarding Willie Masters’ and its production.: “The stains and the nude photos are as close as Gass comes to bringing the outside physical world into the hook, but he wanted much more. He also thought of having cloth tip-ins and a condom bookmark, and, in his own words, ‘lots of other nutty things.'”

2. I’d like to thank Joel Minor and the other archivists in the Special Collections Department of Olin Library at Washington University in St. Louis for their assistance in examining the manuscript drafts of Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife. Visit William H. Gass: The Soul Inside the Sentence.

3. The photography in Willie Masters’ was by Burton L. Rudman. Gass had hoped for an older model to portray Babs, according to Wolfshohl (see note 1). The images of Gass’s original manuscript pages are by the author.

Works Cited

Gass, William H. “Anywhere but Kansas.” Tests of Time, The U of Chicago P, 2002, pp. 28-36.

—. Conversations with William H. Gass. Edited by Theodore G. Ammon, UP of Mississippi, 2003.

—. Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, Dalkey Archive, 1998.

Hardin, Michael. “Desiring Fragmented Bodies and Texts: William H. Gass’s Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife and Kathy Acker’s New York City in 1979.Short Story, vol. 11, no. 2, 2003, pp. 79-90.




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  1. […] (December 6, 2017) My paper “Jailbreak!: William H. Gass’s Lifelong Work to Free Himself from the Imprisonment of Pr… has been accepted for presentation by the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since […]

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